Originally created 08/02/97

Poison ivy in full summer swing

Helen Pickren had no idea a walk through her garden would be fraught with peril.

That was where she encountered her malignant guest, lying in wait for its victims. And there sure wasn't any Batman around to save her.

Instead, Mrs. Pickren endured almost three weeks of the agonizing itch, blistered rash and puffy face that follow a bad encounter with poison ivy.

The legendary three-leafed vine - with its shrubby sibling, poison oak, and tree-like cousin, poison sumac - is in full summer swing in the South.

"Oh, boy, I was a mess," the Augusta woman said. "You should have seen me. It was awful. There's nothing on the market that really works for the itch. And you don't dare scratch it, because that hurts worse."

She must have been gardening when she touched the vine and spread its toxic oil by rubbing her face and adjusting her waistband, leaving not only her hands and legs itching, but her face, neck and waist as well. A friend later found one of the vines in her yard.

"It's bad every year," said Sid Mullis, an agent with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service in Richmond County. "There's no such thing as an off year, the way you have with insects. Poison ivy is a mainstay."

Hikers, playful children, gardeners, even golfers following their ball into the woods can come in contact with the plant. But the oil can also be picked up if you pet an animal that's frolicked through the plant or scoop up laundry that's been brushed by the leaves, said Dr. Barry Thompson, an Augusta dermatologist.

Flying particles from lawn mowers or weed eaters can cause the rash, as can smoke from burning the plants, Dr. Thompson said.

"You can smell the smoke, so you know there are little particles in the air, blowing your way," he said. "It's kind of like spraying you with an aerosol can. And that's the most dangerous way, because you can breathe it in and get the irritation internally."

A mild case can be treated with Benedryl, calamine lotion or a 1 percent hydrocortisone solution available over the counter, Dr. Thompson said. More serious cases call for a trip to the doctor.

And just because you've handled the plant with impunity in the past, don't expect your immunity to last, he added.

"We don't know why some people need more exposure than others," he said. "But there are people who can get in poison ivy, and roll around in it, and play in it with no problem. Then the next time, they break out."


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